The Night Circus is one of those books that suddenly seemed to be everywhere: promoted in book stores, offered for special pricing on my Kindle, and gripped in people’s hands as they waited somewhere or other. So it had been on my radar for a while when I found a hardcover copy of the book at a used book sale. $1 seemed like a pretty good investment to see what the hype was about.
The Night Circus is the story of a travelling circus that operates as the scene for an ongoing duel between two magicians, Celia and Marco. Both magicians were bound to the duel as children by their shadowy guardians and the duel has no defined rules other than “keep performing.” The circus attracts a passionate following of “reveurs,” as the circus’ most devoted fans call themselves. But as the duel goes on, Marco and Celia fall in love and seek a way for both the circus and their forbidden love to survive.
I’m somewhat torn on how to rate this one because it is amazingly good in some ways but really disappointing in others. First the good: Morgenstern has an incredible way with imagery, allowing me to vividly “see” the circus in my mind. And not just see, but smell, taste, and hear it too. She truly has a gift for descriptive writing and the magical circus comes alive at her hands.
Another aspect of the book that deserves special mention is the design of the book. My copy (a Costco purchase, according to a sticker on the dust jacket) had lovely black and white flourishes, including tent-striped endpapers, section breaks with a quote on one side and the image of constellations in a night sky on the other, and delicate, Victorian-feeling motifs alongside each page number. These artistic touches really added to the experience of reading the book as an Event of some sort, rather than just another book. It makes sense that Morgenstern is not only a writer, but also a multimedia artist, according to her bio.
The plot itself is middling. The book starts out as the two magicians come into their overseers’ clutches (yes, this story of orphans committed to and trained for a magic duel warrants the use of such a melodramatic word!) and gains momentum rapidly as the circus becomes real. The best parts of the book, in my opinion, are the scenes in which Morgenstern allows the reader to experience through the eyes (and ears, etc.) of different people: performers, guests, and reveurs. This part is like a dream: meandering, confusing, but vivid and beautiful and utterly fascinating. As the book continues the details begin to overwhelm, the changes of point of view and the breaks to experience one magical event after another, it all becomes unwieldy and tiresome to keep straight. Not unlike the job of keeping the circus itself running, I must note, so perhaps this was intentional. But it still negatively affected my enjoyment as I continued reading the book.
Where the story faltered the worst, in my opinion, was in the characterization. In contrast to the fully-realized circus, most of the characters themselves were flat and lifeless. There were a few exceptions: Herr Frederick Theissen, the clockmaker who establishes (and comes up with the name for) the reveurs, Widget and Poppet, the twins born at the circus, and to a lesser extent, Bailey, a young farm boy who becomes a reveur and then much more. Morgenstern imbued these characters with a sense of self and personality and I really cared about what happened to them. But the majority of the book’s population did not fare as well. Celia and Marco, the dueling magicians and the protagonists of the story, were the biggest problem. I didn’t particularly feel like I knew them, and as a result I didn’t care about them. And I really didn’t care about their love. Given that their struggle to end the duel without either dying or killing the circus was the climax of the plot…that was a problem.
Overall, I give the book three stars. It was a worthwhile read due to Morgenstern’s deft touch with the circus and its dreamy imagery. I suppose the sense of let-down comes from realizing how much more the book could have been.